The new wave of eco-friendly cars
Auto companies want consumers to put down the nozzle and plug in
The following article is part of a broader series meant to share tips and trends around the automobile industry, presented by Chase Auto Finance.
In recent years, many people have embraced hybrid or electric cars, especially when gas prices begin to take a big bite out of their wallet. But a shift seems underway. Despite fuel prices hovering around $2 in some US markets, eco-friendly cars are enjoying record sales. Automobile manufacturers are beginning to broaden their appeal to get consumers to put down the nozzle, and back away from the pump.
You can thank the relatively high price of batteries, and the advanced technology associated with them, for the higher sticker price of electric cars. But the gap between gas and electric cars is narrowing, especially with the new battery-powered Chevrolet Bolt, which can travel about 225 miles on a single charge.
Once you drive away from the dealership, savings add up. "Gas prices are low, but electric rates are even lower," explains Darrin Gesse, project manager for the Bolt EV (electric vehicle). In fact, the Department of Energy's estimates that charging up your electric car is akin to a receiving 50 percent discount over the price of regular gas.
Keep in mind, in 2016 the federal government provided a $7,500 tax break for each electric car purchased. Some state and local governments offer additional financial incentives for switching to electric vehicles.
The body electric
Outside of the high-end Model S and Model X from Tesla, most pure electric vehicles or plug-in hybrid vehicles would be described as "utilitarian hatchbacks." Best sellers like the Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt, and the BMW i3 all fit this category.
But more options are on the table now. "We recognized that our customers may need to carry a lot of people or a lot of luggage," says Chevy's Gesse. The Bolt is a compact crossover. SUVs like the plug-in-hybrid Porsche Cayenne, BMW X5 , Mercedes GL-E , and Volvo XC90, are rolling out. Sedans with plug-in hybrids—like the Chevrolet Malibu, and the forthcoming Honda Accord—promise selection. And Jaguar will produce a five-seat luxury crossover electric vehicle called the I-Pace, which is expected to have as much storage space as a larger SUV.
Getting a charge
The limited driving range of pure electric vehicles, and the long refill times, in contrast to the easy availability of gas, make some consumers back off going green. But, according to AAA, people drive under 30 miles in an average day. And the new electric vehicle charges should take you 100 to 300 miles farther.
A more widely-available charging infrastructure, mostly built by private companies, is beginning to be available in more communities. In the meantime, smart phones come to the rescue — electric vehicle drivers use apps like PlugShare or ChargePoint to point drivers to recharging stations.
What's under the hood
If you're unsure what each type of eco-vehicle offers, you're not alone. "Education on what EVs and other eco-friendly powertrains can do is not really there," says Alexander Edwards, president of automotive research and consulting firm Strategic Vision.
There are three main types of electric vehicles. Traditional hybrids have a gasoline engine and a self-charging battery pack that extends fuel economy. Plug-in hybrids have a gasoline engine and a more powerful battery pack . Pure electric vehicles have no gas engine.
Out for a spin
To help people get comfortable with going green, Chevrolet launched a "Test Drive My Way" program. Consumers can try out a plug-in vehicle at home or work—to experience it in their daily life, not just at a dealership test drive. "That pilot was successful, and really broadened horizons," Gesse says. "We're starting to see electric car buyers who are moving from the early adopter category to the fast follower, and we think we're on the tipping point of mainstream adopter. "
Pump up the volume
For people who aren't ready to commit to electric or hybrid vehicles, the miles per gallon for gas-powered cars has been steadily trending upwards. Reducing vehicle mass (more weight requires more power to move the same distance) and gaining engine efficiency are key to creating less thirsty motors. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that Mazda--a company that doesn't currently compete in the hybrid or electric vehicle space in the US--is the auto industry's top manufacturer of fuel-efficient vehicles. Mazda's cars have an average fuel economy of 30 miles per gallon across their fleet. That's one way to bring us closer to blue sky thinking.
Brett Berk is a Chase News contributor. His work regularly appears in The Drive, Road & Track, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Vanity Fair, among other outlets.